Justine McKnight: Where Am I, I Am Here

HELEN BRITTON

Stevie Waiting, 2021, cotton tablecloth, print ink, silk thread, by Justine McKnight.

Situated in her house in Western Australia, confined in circumstances unthinkable before 2020, Justine McKnight has created a group of works reflecting on what it is to be and see and record in her most known environment, her home. Having always patiently worked on her work parallel to teaching full time, it is important to remark that the COVID experience has given many artists an occasion to reflect and expand their ideas in ways which pre 2020 life left little room for. With this project, the restrictions opened paths to a visual mapping of the artist’s domestic sanctuary resulting in expressive, poetic, contemporary feminist works, saturated with thoughtful observations of constructed environments and our imbedded-ness within them – these places being us and us them. With great respect for materiality and its agency in the face of the geological era of the anthropocene, this work reflects on simplicity, care and humbleness, values that remain key to our salvation. By mapping a deeply private world, Justine holds up a mirror with this work to the broader cartography of consideration and responsibility.
 
And this is a home that I too know well. It is my first sanctuary on arriving in Western Australia, after being based in Munich for the past 20 years, often deep in the night, after two long flights, waking to the flood of light and the first coffee in the dappled brilliance of the courtyard, the relief of having made the journey, of being with my dear friend, my people, my culture, now a dream after two and half years of pandemic exile. What a joy to recognise that beloved space in the images of these new works titled Where am I I Am Here. A statement by a knowing subject acknowledging a historically, geographically and culturally specific moment.
 
I recognise Justine in these works, they are an extension of her performative being, how she moves and sees, selects and organises, in dialogue with all the things around her. This work created in and of this space provides us with a condensed experience of this enactment. The build up of materials, of collections, overlayed by shifting light and shadow observed by the ever-moving eye are traced then layered in a process of accretion. This is a study of the relations between fragments, triggers of memory and their histories in a map of connected paths through time and space, some shared, some a story still to be told, contained in a sanctuary, that is also the artist herself. Justine writes: “My space is the same yet ever changing as I move and look. Everything belongs and I belong with everything.”
 
Is it in the security of this kind of refuge where the boundaries of our being are most permeable? Where it is possible to be all that surrounds us and let those surroundings be ourselves? These are questions for humanity because of the acute awareness that many do not have sanctuary or have had their sanctuary destroyed. And not only for humanity but for all living beings of this earth. What is the frame or boundary that gives a being space to unfold and be both complete and in process? How do we construct that space and with what consequences, right down to the furniture?
 
The sensation created by the non-human presence in this home, all this selected matter, stashed treasure, loosely ordered piles of cloth, carefully arranged assortments of shells, papers, artworks, vases, bowls, sifted out of the possibility of things on her path, is one of deep connectivity. Some of the works contain tracings of the shapes of these things, gathered and stencilled onto fabric that too carries history – tea towels made in Hong Kong for the Australian market, abandoned in suitcases (this alone a work, a poignant metaphor of current history), and salvaged by the artist. The towels bear marks of rust, stains gathered as they bided their time wherever, but here important to note, Justine’s clothing label is Stain, a name selected to remark that the active process of time and contact between substances and the visible consequences are of central interest to the artist. The layers of the work build in sequence, the towels with their histories, the stains that they have acquired on their path through space and time and then Justine’s intervention using simple stencils to trace light and shadow, ephemerally visual experiences, onto these already loaded things.
 
And then there is Stevie. For as long as I’ve known Justine, Stevie has been there, Justine’s familiar, a large and fluffy black and white cat. Never underestimate the presence of animals in our lives, the presence of this one never random. The deep level of understanding arrived at between these two beings after twenty years of mutually respectful co-habitation was as tangible as any friendship. Stevie’s silhouette in this work acknowledges that profound companionship between a human animal and another that is too often underestimated. What ever gave some humans the idea that intelligence and agency is reserved for only certain members of the living world? When will we learn that our being is not the measure of things but a tiny fragment of possibility?
 
Consistent with the artists thinking, both sides of the stencil are the work. The cut papers, used to define the inside and outside of the forms shifting the focus between shape and space along with traces of this process, are stacked and contained as works in their own right. The dividing line between interior and exterior the blur. The works drift and flutter in the bright Australian light – interior and exterior becoming one. There is no separation, we are not set apart, but immersed in an intra-active performance continuously with matter. This is what this work demonstrates and asks us to understand: Matter is an active participant building on and extending consciousness, a discussion brilliant and eloquent in Karan Barad’s inspiring book Meeting the Universe Halfway. There she writes: “Matter is produced and productive, generated and generative. Matter is agentive, not a fixed essence or property of things.”[1]
 
These works are not fixed either and will make their way through the world and live on in your experience of them. Justine’s recording of this space is a mediative performance creating art as an intra-active experimentation with materiality, bringing about meaning in new non discursive forms. Barad provides further insight here: “A performative account insists on understanding, thinking, observing, and theorising as practices of engagement with, and as part of, the world in which we have our being.”[2]
And Justine writes: “This work considers how we know the spaces we inhabit daily.” To really know what we are surrounded by is fundamental to this exploration. Humble, in praise of life and its richness, its comfort, even in this moment of hardship, Justine holds up one of the main lessons to learn; to stop, observe, think and understand the material histories of the place we inhabit and of everything we touch. It is both House and Universe, observing the things closest and the role they play in the complexity of all events.

[1] Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, (London: Duke University Press, 2007), 133.

[2] Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, 137.

Where Am I, I Am Here, by Justine McKnight is curated by Ted Snell and opens 6pm Friday 22 April at There Is, 49 Stuart St, Perth. Exhibition continues to 30 April. Gallery open 11am – 2pm Wed to Sat.

Justine McKnight.

Justine McKnight is an artist, designer and academic who’s practice has included sculpture, textiles, fashion and performance. She has been coordinator of the major in Fashion and Textiles at Edith Cowan University, Western Australia since 2006. She has exhibited garment forms and artworks in exhibition contexts nationally and internationally and worked on collaborative projects since 2010, most notably with friend and collaborator, Helen Britton on the Jewellery for T shirts series, shown in Perth, Melbourne, Amsterdam, Munich and New York between 2010 and 2015 and the FORM initiative Awkward Beauty which toured from the Midland Railway Workshop in Perth, 2010 to ANU Gallery, Canberra and Abbotsford Convent, Melbourne in 2012 and 2013 respectively. In July of 2018, Justine travelled to Munich for a month residency to collaborate with Helen Britton on their latest COLLIDE project supported by a Culture and the Arts WA Creative Development Grant. Her work is held in the National Gallery of Australia, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Janet Holmes a’ Court and private collections.

Table, cotton tablecloth, print ink, silk thread, by Justine McKnight.

Where Am I, I Am Here, cotton tea towels, cotton tablecloth, calico, print ink, silk and cotton thread, by Justine McKnight.

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